Throughout its history, the blues has relied heavily on the reworking of stories and music with uncertain roots by modern artists. This list examines a selection of ten songs that have transformed over time and are recognized by many within the blues community as vital components of the genre’s ever-evolving songbook.
“I’m a Man”
In 1956, Bo Diddley recorded one of the most well-known blues/rock crossover songs of all time. Over fifty years after its release, “I’m a Man” lives on, as proud and strong as when Diddley first belted out its lyrics. The riff carried throughout the song is simple, yet eternal: hundreds of artists have utilized it in their own covers, transforming the tone of the song while keeping its basic sound and message intact.
It has been suggested that the lyrics for “I’m a Man” were influenced by Muddy Waters’ 1954 single “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Waters’ response to Diddley’s song, the famous “Mannish Boy,” became a classic of its own and has been covered by artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and many others. To get a feel for the scope of this song’s rampant transformation, compare it to the sound and lyrics of George Thorogood & the Destroyers’ 1982 single “Bad to the Bone,” another version that utilizes both the riff and the underlying lyrical theme.
“Back Door Man”
This track always seems to top lists outlining remarkable cover songs. On their 1967 debut, the Doors released their version of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” a track originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf. By the time the Doors recorded the song, Dixon was already recognized as a legendary Chicago Blues songwriter – his lengthy list of compositions includes classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Need Love,” a track that was reworked by Led Zeppelin into their famous “Whole Lotta Love.”
The Doors’ version of “Back Door Man” is instantly memorable for the yelp Jim Morrison brings to the beginning of the recording. Backed by Ray Manzarek’s trademark organ, the instrument that acted as both the bass and backbone of the group, the Doors’ “Back Door Man” is an example of a cover song that was completely transformed from its original version.
Everyone knows who made “Hound Dog” famous – we don’t even have to mention his name. However, not everyone realizes that the original version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s song was recorded by the blues artist best known as Big Mama Thornton in 1952. Thornton’s track is straight-up blues in both sound and theme, berating the actions of a cheating partner in a relationship thrown suddenly on the rocks. Four years after its release, Elvis Presley released his version – and what a difference. Presley’s “Hound Dog” has become the rock ‘n roll classic that history remembers, but Thornton’s bluesy original is where the story began.
“House of the Rising Sun”
Who doesn’t feel a chill run down their spine while listening to Eric Burdon sing about the house in New Orleans? The Animals’ 1964 “House of the Rising Sun” is haunting, a blues adaptation of a long-lost folk song with unknown origins. Whoever its composer might have been centuries earlier, the song was brought into the 20th century by the Lomax family in the 1930s for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Songs collection. Roy Acuff, Woodie Guthrie and Lead Belly all recorded versions of the song, but it wasn’t until the Animals released their rendition that “House of the Rising Sun” reached a comfortable #1 spot on popular music charts. As with the Doors’ “Back Door Man,” part of what makes this song memorable is the timeless tone of the organ creeping along in the background. Still, it is the A minor broken chord at the opening and Eric Burdon’s soulful vocals that make the Animals’ version a classic.
“Cross Road Blues”
One of the blues genre’s quintessential musicians, Robert Johnson met death early and became a member of the “Forever 27” after releasing a very limited amount of material. One of the songs he recorded during his famous three-day stint in a San Antonio recording studio was “Cross Road Blues,” a track that tells the tale of a man who encounters the devil and strikes a deal. Though the song was likely much older than Johnson was when he recorded it, the young musician claimed the story as his own, alleging that he himself had met the devil and exchanged his soul for musical excellence.
While many artists since Johnson’s time have cited him as a major inspiration behind their own work, Eric Clapton is one in particular who made Johnson a focus in much of his professional work. In addition to covering Johnson’s epic as the more simply titled “Crossroads,” Clapton created the Crossroads Guitar Festival as a talent-fueled music festival and simultaneous nod to Johnson’s influence. Most of all, it is the myth tied up in the song that hypnotizes artists and listeners alike, the driving force that propels individuals to seek out the legendary location of the crossroads and transform their experiences into whatever form of artistic expression that makes the most sense to them.
“All Along the Watchtower”
Everyone knows the Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and most blues fans realize the song was written and recorded by Bob Dylan right around the time Hendrix was becoming a household name. Still, the differences between these two figures’ recordings are massive enough for inclusion on any list dealing with cover songs. Nine months after Dylan’s original track appeared on his album John Wesley Harding, Hendrix released his version as a single and watched it climb the charts in the UK and the U.S.
While Dylan’s original stays true to his native folk rock genre, Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” includes the brutal guitar work that identifies him as the reigning guitar god of the 1960s. From a critical point of view, the Hendrix single combines the talents of the 20th century’s unparalleled wordsmith and paramount guitar player in a remarkable pairing; from the perspective of a blues fan, it’s just great music.
“Baby, Please Don’t Go”
The original “Baby, Please Don’t Go” was recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935. In the eight decades since, the song itself has become a blues standard, though artists have over time felt free to interpret its sound and lyrics in whatever ways they’ve seen fit. The list of the influential artists who have covered Big Joe Williams’ classic include Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy, and even MC5. AC/DC also released a version in 1975, and it is their performance of the song that we have chosen to highlight here. The group’s rapid tempo of the song drastically alters its scope, while Bon Scott’s whiplash lyrics introduce a degree of desperation that is not quite reached on Williams’ original. AC/DC’s corresponding music video, taken from a live performance on the Australian television show Countdown, similarly demonstrates the band’s goal of distancing themselves from the slow-paced original.
“Black Betty” is another song with uncertain origins. As with “House of the Rising Sun,” it was recorded in the 1930s by the Lomax family for preservation in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Songs and was officially recorded by Lead Belly in 1939. As with the details regarding its creator and composition date, the meaning behind “Black Betty” is widely disputed. Most critics agree that the song originated in the U.S. during the 1800s as a work song, and thus its meaning could be tied to whips and wagons. Others cite “black Betty” as a nickname for whiskey that was used not only in the U.S., but in London as well; it has also been suggested that “black Betty” was a nickname for a musket, with the “bam-ba-lam” lyrics intended to mimic the sound of gunfire.
Though the tempo and repeating lyrics are well known among blues artists and listeners, few “Black Betty” covers have made impacts on the charts in the U.S. or overseas, with the exception of the one hit wonder band Ram Jam in 1977. The Ram Jam cover is similar to Lead Belly’s recording in its rhythm and lyrics – the real difference is in its musical support. Lead Belly originally recorded the track using no instrumentation besides his own vocals. Though Lead Belly added accompanying guitar work in later renditions, Ram Jam skipped ahead to incorporate a full sound the first time around. Despite the similarities in tempo and lyrics in these two versions, the recordings demonstrate how artists worked to adapt “Black Betty” over time to fit with their own interpretations of its meaning and to make use of evolving technology.
“Ball ‘n’ Chain”
Most listeners recognize “Ball ‘n’ Chain” as a Janis Joplin song (recorded officially by Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968), but it was actually recorded first by the same woman responsible for the early “Hound Dog.” Like Joplin, Big Mama Thornton had a deep, gruff voice perfect for the howling vocals of “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” It was Joplin’s performance of this song that made jaws drop at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 – watching the crowd’s reaction to her breakthrough performance at the festival is almost as fun as listening to her sing. Joplin later achieved fame with her cover of Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart,” but it was “Ball ‘n’ Chain” that earned Joplin accolades for her incredible voice.
“Traveling Riverside Blues”
Another of Robert Johnson’s limited recordings is “Traveling Riverside Blues,” a traditional track that follows the 12 bar blues structure and has largely been kept alive through renditions by a handful of prominent blues and rock artists. Not surprisingly, Eric Clapton covered the track, as did his band Cream, but it is Led Zeppelin’s version that acts as the most memorable cover. Instead of simply covering the song, Led Zeppelin transformed it, turning the track into a guitar-driven force that occasionally references Johnson’s lyrics but is formidable enough to stand on its own. “Travelling Riverside Blues” (the British rockers added an extra “l” to the title, as well) sounds almost nothing like the original, but the roots are there if you listen closely.
– Meghan Roos